Did Rome Really Steal Zeus?
The idea that ancient cultures could “steal” each other’s myths, rites, or gods is very prevalent these days. It’s easiest to point to Greece and Rome here; dozens of Greek deities and myths were either made equivalent to preexisting Roman ones or just lifted entirely. Some of this, of course, can be boiled down to the gargantuan influence of Hellenistic culture across the Mediterranean and Near East at the time. Much of it, however, can be attributed to the accuracy of ancient people in assessing connections between their own cultures.
In the 21st century, when everyone is born into one nation, most of which have stable borders and majority, if not mandated, religious beliefs, it makes sense to imagine one nation stealing, say, a god, from another. First, the god was worshipped in one country; sometimes even as that country’s chief god. Then, a foreign second country took up that god’s worship in their own country, adopting the accompanying myths and customs into a new and unintended cultural context. But in antiquity — a time often devoid of either stable borders or fixed singular national identities — the process wasn’t always necessarily so cut-and-dry.
Ancient cultures, and especially those in the long-historied and well-connected Mediterranean and Near East, often took syncretism as a crucial part of their religious evolution. The gods these people encountered in neighboring lands were often just their own local gods recontextualized into a different culture. We know that now from the work of history and archaeology. They seemed to accept it as a plain fact of life. There’s no shortage of examples of gods being given fitting new characteristics from other gods that only fit so well because they were once characteristics of the first god in the first place. We see in the Hellenistic period extensive lists of gods all considered one and the same.
Take Melqart, Phoenician god of life and death, seasonal change and fertility, lord of both the stellar heavens and the underworld, culture-hero and patron of the city of Tyre. Melqart was called the Tyrian Hercules to the extent that the lost “Temple of Hercules” recently claimed to have been uncovered in Spain, and visited by the likes of Hannibal and Julius Caesar, was actually built by Tyrian colonists in honor of Melqart. Despite this, he was also equated with Levantine storm god Ba’al, “He Who Rides the Clouds”, also lord of fertility, seasonal change and the underworld. His connections with the stars, too — being lord of the heavens, who was said to have a starry beard and a cape filled with constellations, who was seasonally resurrected and honored in winter and spring — suggest more connections. Many equate the labors of Hercules with the movements of Orion, who also often functions as a resurrecting god whose seasonal death in the spring brings the rains.
Melqart was one stop in a long line of dozens of known Near Eastern male culture-hero fighter gods, who were equated and differentiated countless times over multiple millennia. We read in the 5th century AD poem, Dionysiaca, the longest surviving poem from all of antiquity, an invocation of this Melqart-Hercules listing all of his supposed names in different countries:
“Belos on the Euphrates, called Ammon in Libya, thou art Apis by the Nile, Arabian Cronos, Assyrian Zeus! … Be thou called Sarapis, the cloudless Zeus of Egypt; be thou Cronos, or Fhaethon of many names, or Mithras the Sun of Babylon, in Hellas Delphic Apollo … Be thou called the Starclad, since by night starry mantles illuminate the sky — O hear my voice graciously with friendly ears!”
Clearly, syncretism got confusing, and the extreme lengths it goes to in examples such as the above weren’t ignored by ancient authors. On the contrary, ancient writers often commented on the habit of people to confuse, reinvent and reassign their gods without sense. The Romans, especially, were well aware of this, having been the syncretizing force between themselves and countless other cultures. If we’re to understand how Zeus came to be Jupiter and Melqart came to be basically everybody, then, we have nowhere else to turn but Rome.
Pliny the Elder, 1st century Roman statesman, may come to our aid here . He’d known Vespasian from his army days, so when his friend became emperor, he was awarded an important naval position in the Bay of Naples, overlooking Pompeii, Herculaneum and their neighboring towns. He would perish in the eruption of Vesuvius, within just months of his diarrhea-slain friend Vespasian, but not before compiling most of what would become The Natural History. This was an unparalleled encyclopedic triumph — some call it the first real encyclopedia ever — that’d be used as an authoritative intellectual text for several centuries following. In it, Pliny had the following to say about our tendency to categorize and divide the same religious truths into different traditions:
“Human nature, weak and frail as it is, mindful of its own infirmity, has made these divisions, so that every one might have recourse to that which he supposed himself to stand more particularly in need of. Hence we find different names employed by different nations, and … hence we may understand how it comes to pass that there is a greater population of the Celestials than of human beings, since each individual makes a separate God for himself.”
Pliny is essentially giving us in the 1st century what would take modern scholars centuries to conclusively say; that ancient people often assigned different names and qualities to the same basic deities. The gods of Greece and beyond were not adopted into Rome, but rightly recognized as the same gods given different characteristics by disparate cultural developments.
The Romans’ famous policies of religious syncretism were enacted for the very good reason that many of the groups they conquered already worshipped gods descended from the gods of their own ancestors. The Bronze Age Indo-European pantheon — which served as the basis for later Greek, Roman, Persian, Celtic, Slavic, Germanic, Vedic and more still historical pantheons — made syncretism with these groups fairly straightforward. The people of the Mediterranean and Near East, too — those of the Maghreb, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia — though not Indo-European themselves, had been in contact with Greeks, Macedonians and other Indo-Europeans for centuries before Roman conquest.
The ancients didn’t simply rip each other off. They used the very real connections between their respective mythologies to enrich each other. Jupiter was never just a Roman knockoff of Zeus. Jupiter existed in Rome well before the Romans had ever heard of Zeus. Once cultural exchange with the Greeks had made it clear that the Greeks’ chief deity was in fact a localized version of the Romans’ own chief deity, the Romans merely added onto their preexisting mythology with Greek stories that fit within the Roman religious schema.
And this apparent religious universality served a critical function, too, in the reinforcement of pagan beliefs. People often wonder nowadays how their ancestors could’ve literally believed in the fantastic, even plainly preposterous, stories of their gods. The answer to that is simple and twofold. First, many modern people with millennia of accumulated world knowledge available to them can believe in ancient aliens, a flat earth or a reptilian elite. Second, when ancient people were constantly running into foreign cultures who told very similar stories about very similar gods, that surely gave said stories much more credibility in their minds. If it seemed every culture in the world told the same tale, wouldn’t you believe it easier? Do we not do the same thing ourselves and today and take for granted as true the things everyone everywhere says are true?
The eventual death blow to all of this syncretic action should come as no surprise. Christianity, with its strict rejection of any god not its own and its centuries-long conversion campaign, single handedly killed the European and Mediterranean pagan order. And even then, the natural syncretic tendency died hard. Gnosticism made a massive effort in the first few centuries AD to combine the new doctrines of Christ with the Greco-Roman mystery schools and Hellenistic syncretic paganism. The initiatory rites and secret knowledge of the fading pagan cults blended with the Christian drive toward salvation, and they jostled with traditional Christianity all the way until the fall of Western Rome.
These Gnostics were then defeated, of course, but the millennia-old syncretic traditions they championed would live on in esoteric spirituality indefinitely. We see it today, in the often sloppy syncretism between Eastern traditions and Western spirituality pushed by the New Age and contemporary spiritual movements. And we see, more clearly than ever, that this attitude of religious cross-comparison and adoption overpowered attitudes of religious dogmatism for most of history.